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Architecture and practice: future directions.

How should the profession face the competitive and consumerist climate of the late twentieth century? The author was the progenitor of an important study of the profession* and has just completed his two-year stint as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, during which he was President of the Architects' Council of Europe for a year. This speech, given during the Africa 2000 conference at Cape Town in April, outlines his belief that dynamic development of knowledge must be the basis for a successful profession that offers a 'formidable combination of practical design imagination and ethical concern for the unfolding good of users'.

A context of change

Honoured as I am to be asked to speak at this conference, I am particularly aware, in a time of such rapid change, of the need to resist the temptation to tell South African architects what to do. However, I think I can say some useful things based upon my experience of the changes that are taking place in European practice. What you must do is to treat me and what I have to say as so much comparative data under the general rubric of global change.

My theme is change, especially change in architectural practice. I have been able to observe closely as president of the Architects' Council of Europe (1994) and as president of the RIBA (1993-95) some of the pressures that are changing architectural practice so rapidly in Europe. In my personal professional life as a specialist architect-helping large client organisations manage change internationally - I have been lucky enough to observe many other examples of analogous changes that are reshaping other very different kinds of organisational structures. The underlying dynamics are much the same as in architecture: the growth of discrimination and consumerism among users and clients, burgeoning dissatisfaction with old ways and outmoded processes, new values and attitudes in the workforce, increasingly fierce international competition, the growing importance of information leading to more and more specialisation and, above all, the pitiless logic of information technology, which is dissolving the conventions that used to prevail in every field it touches Just as our clients are learning to cope with accelerating change, so architects are having to learn to redesign design.

Redesigning professionalism

It has also become very clear to me that we architects must redesign our professional structures. How can we seriously defend, in a changing world, the timeless apparatus of professionalism which we have inherited from the nineteenth century - the paraphernalia of institutes, councils, committees, awards, medals, visiting boards, honorary fellows, diplomas and dinners?

In the Architects' Council of Europe what I see is an increasingly fragile, if still widespread, atelier system of Continental architectural practice being violently challenged by a supply side driven construction industry that often seems to behave as flit recognised, presumably in order to maximise profits, only the simplest and largest-scale problems. This industry increasingly does not hesitate to attack what it construes as the protectionism, the fragmentation, the inefficiency, the self-regard of architects. From their perspective we architects are very much part of the problem.

In the RIBA, in a Britain dominated by market forces, I have experienced wave after wave of governmental attacks on the traditional structure of the architectural profession - on the code of conduct, on the funding of what seems to outsiders to be an expensive, inconveniently long and design-oriented architectural course, on our sadly lost fee-scale arrangements designed to be fair and to avoid the destructive effects of fee bidding, and even on the secure possession of our own hard-won title of 'architect'. What is common to all these attacks is the desire to destroy the special status of the professional.

In my own practice I observe every day tremendous but poorly rewarded risk-taking on behalf of clients, huge commercial pressures, new and unconventional ways of working demanding ever greater investment and constant pressure on fees. There are conflicts between local responsibility and global opportunity, between the search for excellence and the imperative to deliver on time at cost, between research and design, between aspiring towards the ideal and being ground down by reality.

Being president gives one a special sense of the shape of the profession - 30 000 architects in the RIBA, 300 000 in the Architects' Council of Europe - of various ages and conditions flying, as it were, through space and time, collectively exhibiting at any one moment skills, habits and attitudes, some going back to the 1920s, others stretching forward into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

How can this vast array of talent be protected from marginalisation? How can architects' design imagination be harnessed for the benefit of future generations? How can architects avoid the continuing stigma of relative economic failure? Not by relying on outmoded forms of practice. Nor by wasting energy on the irrelevant aspects of professional structures. The vitally important thing is to rethink both, to make practice and profession relevant to a rapidly changing economic, social and technological environment.

Unity is not enough

The answer is not to jettison architectural values nor to abandon professionalism. One thing I have learned from my two parallel presidencies is the enormous practical and political value of architects working together, despite competitive pressures, in the common interest and for 'the common good. I have also learned exactly how much energy is required to hold architects together.

There is no obvious reason why architects should not quarrel, why professional structures, based fundamentally on voluntary effort alone, should not quickly fall apart. Getting to know the professional institutes within the European Union, for example, reveals where the latent potential for fragmentation lies - between, for example, elite architects and the less talented bulk of the profession, between the big city practices and the provincial ones, between young architects and old, between those who teach and those who have been taught, between the fully qualified and the technicians, between specialists and generalists, between those who design and those who get things done. What we have, in effect, is a model of potential schism, a hundred different ways of falling apart. And yet on the whole, architects still do stick together. The forces of cohesion, given a chance, still seem stronger than those that would lead to disintegration.

My presidential experiences have made me put a very high value on the maintenance of unity and common purpose in the architectural profession. However, that unity must be based upon a common ideal, beliefs that are not only shared by most architects but also happen to be relevant to clients, to users and to society. Sadly in the UK architects held on to a unifying myth - the idea that architecture was essentially the servant of the welfare state - long after British society had been violently shifted in another direction. Many of our current troubles, as architects in the UK, stem first from failing to observe the implications of societal change - and second, and more practically, from clinging to a framework for the management of architectural practice that had become obsolete and irrelevant. Unity is not enough.

Should British architects succeed in redefining their proper role in modern society - as I confidently believe many are doing already - then the leverage, as the Americans would say, of architectural imagination properly applied to solving contemporary societal and economic problems would be terrific. Knowledge is power and it is the architect's genius as well as duty to exercise imaginative power to help ordinary as well as extraordinary people make the best use of their physical surroundings, now and in the future.

It is exactly this task of redefinition and, in fact, of reinvention of the role of the architect in change-ridden modern society that the Strategic Study, my most important venture as president of the RIBA, set out to accomplish. In parallel, the Architects' Council of Europe set out, also under my guidance, to respond to the advice that the European Commission was receiving from the supply side oriented, top-down, money-obsessed, size-fixated construction industry.

Global fantasies and local realities

Most architects have no difficulty understanding what their colleagues in Japan, the US or Germany are trying to do with glass and steel and stone. Many of the same internationally published books sit upon architects shelves worldwide. The same global images haunt our collective imagination. And yet the vast majority of architectural practices, because of the specific nature of sites, the small scale and fragmented pattern of client demand, and the divided and generally undercapitalised nature of architectural practice, are very local indeed.

This curious combination of global imagination and intensely local economic reality may seem to be in theory a source of strength for architects - a version of the fashionable management nostrum, 'Think globally; act locally'. It is more likely to be the opposite: evidence that international fantasies are getting in the way of architects' engagement with the real and urgent demands of their clients or with the great contemporary issues of ecological sustainability that need direct local practical and political commitment if they are to be resolved.

The first two phases of the RIBA's four-year study of architectural practice in the UK, our Strategic Study, bore out this more pessimistic view and were full of harsh lessons for architects. The first phase (1991-92) was . designed as a tour d'horizon of contemporary practice. It turned out to be a severe critique of certain unintended consequences of the managerial revolution in architectural practice that stemmed from the RIBA's quaintly tided but seminal 1962 study, The Architect and His Office. Models of good practice which had been established with great effort and good will in the UK in the '60s turned out to have been subverted in the totally different conditions of the late '80s and '90s. Under the fierce pressure of market-based competition in post-Thatcherite Britain (to the horror of our colleagues in the rest of the Architects' Council of Europe) it had become illegal for British architects to 'collude' against the public interest by offering fixed fee scales. Some architects, desperate to survive, had become accustomed to giving away, or at least spectacularly discounting, their chief intellectual property - conceptual design ideas - in order to buy the busy work of detailing, working drawings and contract administration which they imagined would pay the bills and keep their practices busy.

Clients and practices

Phase 2 of the RIBA Strategic Study (1993) concentrated on discovering what the best contemporary clients think about architects and also on discovering the secrets that had made it possible for certain architectural practices to succeed even during the recession. From our studies of what clients think of architects, the RIBA has learned that clients really do like and value design ideas - but that they dislike very much the ways in which architects tend to deliver what they have designed. This is partly because clients find it difficult to disassociate the architect's contribution from that of the rest of the construction industry and partly because architects, by the inherently enthusiastic nature of our calling, often succeed in raising clients' expectations without really having the power or the managerial control to provide all that we have appeared to promise. Worst of all, in the RIBA's detailed studies of the performance of the most 'successful' architectural practices, we found that the cleverest, the most able architects still do not feel impelled to relate their design skill to what it does for their clients.

Such are the findings, which some architects found so depressing, of the first two phases of the RIBA Strategic Study. Instead of being depressed, we drew the obvious practical conclusion and made very sure that the third phase of our work (1994-95) would be marked by building on our collective strengths, by being willing to rethink together what it is that architects should be trying to achieve in modern society. This was done with the optimism characteristic of that great gift that comes from our long architectural training - the belief that, given a problem clearly stated, we architects can somehow design a way to solve it.

Advancing architectural knowledge

A profession, and all the status and public esteem that traditionally go with it, cannot be defended in terms of preserving the status quo and even less in terms of protectionism, boundary maintenance, or self-elected exclusivity. The architectural profession, in particular, can only justify itself in terms that relate to the unique nature of architectural knowledge; that is, to using building design to anticipate the unfolding demands of users, clients and society for the buildings they need to house themselves and all their activities in the most effective, beautiful and sustainable way.

To make this argument fully operational in the competitive and consumerist environment of today it is absolutely necessary for architects to define architectural knowledge in a way that commands public respect. Our rifle, our mode of remuneration, our ways of working, our relations with clients, our position in the construction industry and our educational programme all depend upon this.

The objective of the whole RIBA Strategic Study is the redefinition, the reinvention of the role of the architect in modern society. The core of this redesign of architecture is the axiom that whatever influence an architect will have in any particular situation depends ultimately upon architects' collective ability to advance architectural knowledge. If we ask how the profession of architecture in this information-hungry last decade of the twentieth century can set about reforming itself, then the answer has to be through architects being empowered to release the potential of architectural knowledge.

In order to change the RIBA to make it achieve this objective, we have already set about three parallel tasks:

a) making sure that the RIBA accelerates the development of architectural knowledge through finding the most effective ways of ensuring that architects are continually communicating with and learning, sector by sector, from clients, in as systematic a way as possible, about what architectural design can do to anticipate and satisfy the emerging needs of users, clients and society;

b) redesigning the membership and organisational structure and the information technology of the RIBA so that we encourage and reward networking among members in order to help them acquire, develop and share specific facets of that highly practical and extremely valuable commodity, architectural knowledge;

c) making sure that the RIBA's educational programme for architects, carried out in partnership between schools and practice, is as effective an instrument as possible for developing, diffusing and transmitting that body of architectural knowledge.

Our architectural future

This vigorous activity of 're-designing' the architectural profession, in a period of accelerating societal change, is based upon a theory. That theory is a development of the classical idea of professionalism which was hammered out for British architects almost 200 years ago by such fathers of the institute as Sir John Soane. The classical idea of professionalism in architecture argued that the autonomy of architects depended upon the neutrality that Soane thought necessary, in a violently competitive and often corrupt early nineteenth-century word, to hold the ring between client and contractor. The new idea of professionalism argues that neutrality - or rather dispassionate professional judgement - depends more and more in this increasingly complex world upon the dynamic development of knowledge. To Soane's wise and long-lasting but somewhat static formulation has been added a new, additional and urgent professional responsibility: to justify architectural autonomy continually through a demonstrably superior body of knowledge deployed in the service of society through a measurably more effective battery of skills.

The distinguishing mark of professionalism in architecture in the next decade will be the shift we have already begun in the RIBA from being a learned organisation to becoming a learning organisation. Throughout the European Union architects will be characterised by being knowledge based, research oriented and increasingly specialised, and by our growing investment in continuous learning for all architects. Information technology will be the glue that holds us all together. We shall be more and more capable, in an increasingly information-addicted society, of exercising direct influence on politics in Westminster, in Brussels and in Strasbourg. Our power base will no longer be patronage but that formidable combination of practical design imagination and ethical concern for the unfolding good of users that we have already defined as the essence of architectural knowledge. This direction-giving power, supported by all the resources of CAD, will increase our collective influence over the construction industry enormously. In this way, the power of consumerism will be directed by architectural intelligence to tame a construction industry that has confused big profits and big scale with what ought to be done. We architects will have every justification to be the masters of the procurement process.

Architects will be far less concerned with maintaining our boundaries, and much more imaginative in making the alliances with other disciplines that will be necessary to anticipate and meet our clients' needs. Our scope of work will extend from the design of new buildings to the design of the use, through time, of the whole built environment, external and internal. Developing architectural knowledge, freely shared through voluntary association, will make confidence in the future as easy and natural as honouring the past.

More options for the future will be both the result and the ultimate justification of the new professionalism.

* The first two volumes of the RIBA's Strategic Study are available from RIBA Publications Ltd, Finsbury Mission, 39 Moreland Street, London EC1V 8BB. Price [pound]20 each or [pound]30 the pair. Third volume in preparation.

Dr. Francis Duffy is Chairman of DEGW International Ltd, an architectural practice specialising in the design of the working environment, which has offices in London, Glasgow, Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Milan.
COPYRIGHT 1995 EMAP Architecture
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Author:Duffy, Francis
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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